Michael Yeung, newly appointed Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, appears willing to take a more conciliatory position with Beijing over the church's role in Hong Kong and the mainland. Photo: AFP/Isaac Lawrence
Michael Yeung, newly appointed Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, appears willing to take a more conciliatory position with Beijing over the church's role in Hong Kong and the mainland. Photo: AFP/Isaac Lawrence

Catholics in Hong Kong have a new leader. Monsignor Michael Yeung, 71, officially took over Aug. 5 as ordinary bishop of the local diocese. He was named by Pope Francis to replace retired Cardinal John Tong, 78.

Hong Kong’s diocese has played a go-between role between the Vatican and the Catholic community in mainland China since 1951 when the Communist regime in Beijing and the Holy See cut diplomatic ties. Because of the historical role of his bishopric, Msgr. Yeung’s attitude toward the current Sino-Vatican dialogue will be carefully scrutinized.

As underscored by Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of AsiaNews, the question is whether the new bishop of Hong Kong will take the more conciliatory tone of his predecessor or, in contrast, will adhere to the more intransigent position of Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of the city who retired in 2009.

In his farewell letter to the Catholic faithful of Hong Kong, Cardinal Tong pointed out that he would continue his work to move dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing forward. Instead, Cardinal Zen recently reiterated opposition to a compromise on bishops’ appointments in mainland China, saying the Vatican should not give the power to choose (or pre-select) clerics to the Chinese government.

Both the Holy See and the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) lay claim to the assignment of bishops in China. This contrast is proving to be a stumbling block in negotiations between Beijing and the Vatican.

Beijing vows continued control of Catholics

Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee and chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said at an event last month commemorating the 60th anniversary of the CPCA that Beijing would maintain a “tight grip” on the Catholic Church in China and its estimated 10 to 12 million faithful.

Interviewed by an Italian daily business newspaper on July 27, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, conceded that talks between the two parties are not making progress, in particular on the appointment of bishops.

At first glance, it seems the new bishop of Hong Kong is opting for a realist line, in which there is no room for antagonism with the Chinese government. In a news conference after his appointment, Msgr. Yeung said he backed the dialogue between China and the Vatican, adding that his diocese could be a bridge between them, though it had no direct role in the negotiating process. However, in Zen’s footsteps, he emphasized that the Pope was the only authority that could appoint bishops.

Msgr. Yeung’s prudent debut as bishop of Hong Kong has also drawn criticism. Some have questioned his tepid support for the so-called “underground” Catholics in China, who are loyal to the Pope and not the Beijing-controlled CPCA, and his failure to speak out forcefully against the removal of crosses from religious buildings in the Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces by local authorities.

Yeung focuses on Hong Kong’s political issues

Though reluctant to address religious problems in China directly, Msgr. Yeung appears more vocal about the political situation in Hong Kong. He said the majority of young Hongkongers did not want to fight the city’s institutions and that local rulers should take into account their discontent.

Like cardinals Zen and Tong, Msgr. Yeung supports demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong. In the past he expressed fears for the growing expansion of Beijing’s power to interpret the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that defined the semi-autonomous status of Hong Kong after its handover from Britain to China in 1997. Nonetheless, he opposes the “localist” movement, arguing that outright independence for the city is both “impossible and unfeasible.”

What is really important to Msgr. Yeung is that the people of Hong Kong do not focus on economic wealth alone, but also on political reforms. He does not rule out weighing in on political affairs. In his view, the Catholic Church is not a political actor, but it can stimulate a debate in the political arena to relaunch reforms.

Msgr. Yeung’s call for the advancement of civil and political liberties in Hong Kong, however, could foster religious freedom in mainland China too. Religious freedom is an integral part of personal freedom. If the latter gets stronger, the former grows as a consequence. In light of this, despite Msgr. Yeung’s caution, it is certain that Beijing will keep a careful eye on the new course of the city’s Catholic diocese.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.